Space Force, Trump’s proposed sixth military branch that would be responsible for all defence activity in space, has been met with mixed reviews, to say the least. But keen-eyed space fans will recognize that this is neither the first time America has proposed a military space program nor is it the case that space is free of military activity. So let’s look at the long history of military activity in space.
For anyone outside the US, the five existing military branches are the US Air Force, the US Navy, the US Army, the US Marines, and the US Coast Guard. And the first three have long and ongoing histories in space.
The US Navy’s Vanguard rocket is responsible for the infamous Flopnik launch of December in 1957 as well as a handful of lesser-known successful satellite launches beginning in 1958. Currently, Navy satellite work falls under the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command that is based in San Diego.
The Army was responsible for the Redstone IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile) that launched the suborbital Mercury missions. And of course, it was the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) team headed by Wernher von Braun that started developing the Saturn family of rockets before the group was transferred to NASA. Currently, the Army has its Space and Missile Defense Command in Huntsville, where the ABMA was based.
The Air Force has always had the largest part of the space pie. Historically — this is Vintage Space, remember — the USAF was behind the Atlas ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) that launched the orbital Mercury missions as well as the Titan II; the one that launched Gemini was a modified version of the missile that was stored in silos around the country. Currently, the USAF has all kinds of space projects on the go including launching and maintaining satellites and a GPS network, they do a lot of work tracking space junk, and of course there’s the famous X-37B, the Dyna-Soar-esque unmanned spaceplane that orbits for months at a time and comes down… and we don’t know what it’s doing because it’s classified. The Air Force Space Command is currently managed out of the Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado.
Naturally, the USAF is the service least excited at the prospect of a Space Force, which is consistent with its long history of being sad it didn’t get the whole space cake 60 years ago.
In 1958, before America had a space agency, the USAF imagined that it would, by default, run the nation’s space program. It was doing all the preliminary work with programs like the X-15 and the Dyna-Soar space plane, it was developing missiles and already thinking about using them to launch the aforementioned space planes into orbit, and not to mention you can’t go into space without going through the air. So why not hand control of space over to the USAF?
The short answer to that question is Eisenhower. President Eisenhower was in office from 1953 to 1961, an era when the Cold War really took roots… for you kids out there, the Cold War was the ideological war between the United States and the Soviet Union that arose in the wake of the Second World War. Basically, democratic America and communist Russia jones forces to take down Hitler but then realized their cooperation didn’t work in times of peace. Russia wanted to rule the communist world and America wanted to stop the spread of communism, and thus began a four-decade standoff. The two countries were on the brink of war (the Korea War and the Vietnam War being the instances when the conflict turned hot) while both built up their arsenals of missiles to prove their might.
This build-up of missiles fed into the space age. In the Soviet Union, there was no separation between military and space; space was tacked on to the military program of missile developments while in the United States there was less concentration of work on this new technology. Fast forward to 1957 when both countries have missiles and small satellites in production. It’s no surprise, really, that the Soviets got the first satellite into Orboti on October 4 of that year. (You can read a more detailed account of how the Soviet’s get Sputnik up so quickly right here: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/vintagespace/2017/10/04/sputnik-was-the-soviets-backup-satellite/#.W5goFS3MzOQ)
Eisenhower didn’t want to fight a war in space. Almost everything about space was unknown, expensive, and altogether something to avoid. In July 1958, he signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act creating NASA, a civilian agency that would manage all the space things going on in the US with the goal of opening space to all mankind.
And space has been non-military ever since! Well… mostly. I say mostly because we can’t pretend that the Space Race of the 1960s — again, for you kids out there that’s the one to the Moon — wasn’t an incarnation of the Cold War. The Space Race was a high-stakes game of one-ups-manship that America “won” by getting men to the Moon before the Soviets (who never made a manned landing). I also say mostly because, as I mentioned already, the rockets that launched the early missions came from the military. And some military influence persisted. The space shuttle was the size it was because the Department of Defence said it would help fund the program if the payload bay was large enough to hold military satellites.
And we can’t talk about the military in space without mentioning that whole Star Wars thing that started in 1983, and no, I’m not talking about the theatrical release of Return of the Jedi…
Properly called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), it was a program announced by President Reagan in 1983 as a national anti-ballistic missile system that involved putting weapons in space and making nuclear weapons obsolete.
The story goes that the whole SDI program started with his 1979 visit to NORAD. When he asked what could be done in the event of a nuclear strike from the Soviet Union, he was told “nothing” — there was nothing to do but track the missile because once an ICBM was on its way it was going to reach its target. So, Reagan directed one of his advisors, Martin Anderson, to find a way to do something.
The only place to do something was in space since a typical ICBM trajectory takes it outside the atmosphere. As the plan for SDI developed, Reagan was so hellbent on developing some working system and adamantly refused to limit testing in laboratories, which meant only one thing: he wanted to test the system in space. And that in itself suggested another facet to SDI. There was speculation that he wanted to test the defensive system in space as a cover for developing and testing an offensive weapons system in space at the same time.
The system itself was something right out of, well, Star Wars. It was designed to include both Earth and space-based laser battle stations — “Excaliber” — that would aim their beams at a Soviet missile, moving them from their set trajectory.
Spoiler alert: SDI never got off the ground. The technology was proved conceptually but President Clinton found the program to be ideologically unsound and cancelled it.
So why discuss SDI with respect to Space Force? Well, its legacy for one thing, which is something historians are still debating. Some are of the opinion that even if the Soviet Union was fearful of SDI it didn’t spend any extra money developing a counter-program and so it didn’t force the Soviet military into bankruptcy. Others argue that American support for SDI brought a new era wherein policy wasn’t for mutually assured destruction but for the protection of the American people. There’s also the opinion out there that Reagan had to move forward with the plan just to maintain the strategic advantage. But most agree that, in any case, SDI helped end the Cold War, either by building up a scary arsenal or by bringing about detente.
I don’t have an answer for that — I’m fascinated with the episode but have yet to dig through any of the documentation myself. The point, because we’re discussing Space Force here, is to look at this as an example of a military space program proposal that never really did anything but might have had a significant impact in international relations. But we can only take this as a case study since we’re dealing with a different time. In 1983, America was hellbent on stopping the spread of communism and Russia was the enemy. Now, things are… different… Politically as well as technologically. Space capabilities are evolving quickly, and in 2007 we saw China use a missile to destroy a non-functional satellite. It’s events like that Chinese satellite destruction that have led to talks of establishing a new military branch in recent years. The usually look a little bit like SDI, and Space Force in no exception.
The primary goal of Space Force would be to protect American space-based assets and attack enemy assets in the event of war. Think about it — we rely on GPS so much now it could be a significant move to knock out an enemy’s satellite relay system, like a modern-day D-Day but with all the in situ organization falling away when the satellites are destroyed. Maybe not the best example but you get the idea.
Looking ahead, goals would include some of the things the USAF already does, ongoing tasks like managing space junk. There’s a LOT of it out there that could impede military action, so Space Force could clean it up in the meantime, just to be ready. And of course, these kinds of maintenance activities could continue to teach us about living and working in space. Down the line Space Force could be a rescue service for lunar travelers, and it could maybe even defend the planet against an outside alien threat! Though the biggest outside threat is probably an asteroid strike and not some alien species coming down to enslave us all, and frankly hunting for Earth-destroying asteroids is something we should be spending more money on… But I digress.
The Air Force, which manages most things in space, is the main body pushing back against the idea of a Space Force. Just like it objected to NASA being the space agency 60 years ago, it’s objecting now to losing ownership and control of that realm. There’s an argument going around against Space Force that it would be too hard to reorganize, but the US created a standalone Air Force in 1947. It’s possible to create a new military branch, it’d be messy, maybe, but it’s doable.
So let’s imagine the Powers That Be in Washington decide that yes, we need to focus on space defence and we need to revisit SDI because it’s likely that at least some of that research would still be relevant. Establishing a Space Force wouldn’t happen overnight. It takes time to establish a new military branch. That, and a Space Force would have to address existing laws that prohibit nuclear weapons in space. The Outer Space Treaty signed in 1967 and amended in the intervening years aimed to set up a legacy of non-armament in space, ensuring that it remained a domain of peaceful exploration. I won’t get into the whole history of that treaty, but you can read about it here: https://www.popsci.com/blog-network/vintage-space/1967-outer-space-treatys-legacy-non-aggressive-exploration-space
It’s that last point that seems like the potentially most challenging sticking point. My own opinion, admittedly without insight into any of the technical or political talks happening in closed-door meetings at the Pentagon, is that space should remain free of conflict as laid out in all the early non-armament treaties. And really, if Russia does build up its arsenal as it’s threatening to do over Space Force, it would also be in violation of these treaties, so it’s likely to become an issue no matter what happens next.
Maybe (ok, probably) I’m overly idealistic wanting space to be the one realm where the best of humanity rises to the top free from politics. The same way that the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975 marked the beginning of cooperation in space, I dream of seeing a multinational mission to Mars, to Venus (please let’s not ignore Venus!) and to distant moons of Saturn and Jupiter. Space could bring out the best in us as a species without succumbing to our worst instincts. Of course, that won’t happen. War breeds innovation and funds projects… but at least keeping space free of active weapons and manned outposts, to me, seems like a step in the right direction.